Arizona Costume Institute lecture features history of nail polish in political trends

Suzanne Shapiro explains the relationship between nail enamel and femininity throughout time at the Arizona Costume Institute’s first lecture of the season held at the Phoenix Art Museum on Wednesday night. Shapiro is the author of "Nails: The Story of the Modern Manicure" which was released in April. (Carolyn Corcoran/DD)
Suzanne Shapiro explained the relationship between nail enamel and femininity at the Arizona Costume Institute’s first lecture of the season at the Phoenix Art Museum on Wednesday night. (Carolyn Corcoran/DD)

Author Suzanne Shapiro discussed the history of manicures and their connection with political and social trends at the Whiteman Hall of the Phoenix Art Museum on Wednesday evening.

Nail polish is an extension of a woman’s personality and, like her, should be seen as a blank canvas for experimentation, Shapiro said. 

Shapiro wrote “Nails: The Story of the Modern Manicure” and used it as the basis of her discussion at the museum on Central Avenue and McDowell Road. It was the Arizona Costume Institute’s first lecture of the 2014-2015 season.

Through her research, which began as a master’s thesis, she discovered a correlation between nail enamel trends and the popularity of self-expression and femininity or lack thereof.

“As personal as our hands are, they are constantly on display, subject to others’ appraisal,” Shapiro said. “Historically, (nail enamel and design) is actually pretty advantageous, (as it allows) a woman to truly speak with her hands.”

Titling her lecture “Jungle Red and Dragon Ladies: A Century of Modern Manicure,” Shapiro took the audience of more than 90 attendees through the chronological history of the manicure. She highlighted each decade into the 21st century.

“I’ve found mentions of an American actress that had her nails pierced with dangling diamonds in 1900 and a minor fad in San Francisco in 1912 in which young women would decoupage photos of their boyfriends onto their fingernails,” Shapiro said.

Beginning in the late 1920s and into the 1930s, nail enamel took on deep, rich red tones to emulate the sexual awakening of women “who dared to drink with the boys and dance all night.”

Shapiro said the 1930s served as the most influential decade of style as well as the peak of experimentation.

“Fashion had hit a fever pitch of insane new styles and really out-there statements,” Shapiro said.

Throughout World War II in the 1940s, women began to purchase shades of red with fitting names such as “Alert” and “On Duty” as a financially-savvy supplement to the regular beauty routine. Deep burgundy nail enamels continued through the “golden age” of makeup and post-war economy of the 1950s, a time Shapiro also referred to as “sexual liberation.”

With the introduction of birth control and style icons like Jackie Kennedy in the 1960s, Shapiro said, nude colors and pale tones then replaced reds for an entire decade. Shortly after, however, the jazz age of the 1970s and hip hop culture of the 1980s brought back remnants of the 1930s. Reds, greens and purples mimicked a disillusioned culture. Nails became more elongated and eclectic. Southern California in the 1990s soon became home to multiple nail spas owned primarily by Asian-Americans, enhancing the industry with a new business model.

“(Also,) the so-called ‘lipstick index,’ which observes healthy sales during economic hardship, has been replaced by the nail polish index,” Shapiro said. “It’s certainly been the fastest-growing category in cosmetics.”

Jennifer Pyles, 31, a nail technician at Luminosa Beauty School in Phoenix, said that Shapiro’s lecture was not only informational but also reflected the trends of her current clientele.

“I found myself nodding a lot and agreeing with her,” Pyles said. “(I have also seen) more men coming into the salon.”

From the Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week, currently going on in New York, to the Brooklyn borough in which she lives, Shapiro said nail enamel continues to be a means of self-expression that transcends age, body type, ethnicity, socioeconomic status and location, among other elements — which also is reflected in the art museum’s objective through its partnership with the Arizona Costume Institute.

“We want Phoenix to have a global presence,” said Casey Hagarty, curatorial assistant to the fashion design department at the Phoenix Art Museum. “We’re really trying to broaden our audience through bringing people like Suzanne in all the way from New York.”

Hagarty said that the Arizona Costume Institute and the Phoenix Art Museum, both of which rely on public donations, have a mutually beneficial relationship that allows both organizations to greatly impact the downtown community and surrounding area.

“(They have been) an integral part from the beginning,” Hagarty said.

The Arizona Costume Institute’s free lecture series takes place on the second Wednesday of every month at the museum. Next month’s lecture, “Celebrating James Galanos,” will be given by fashion model Tatiana Sorokko on Oct. 8 at 12:30 p.m.

Correction: September 14, 2014:

This article has been updated to more accurately represent how many people were in attendance.

Contact the reporter at carolyn.corcoran@asu.edu